Curbside Classic: 1968 Opel Kadett Rallye 1900 – The European SS396 Which Up-Ended The Old World Order

(first posted 8/22/2012)    There are two very good reasons why we’re having the third Kadett CC, when other cars have had none. First: this isn’t just any Kadett, but a Rallye 1900. And believe it or not, the Rallye 1900 was a very significant car historically; in fact I would call something of a revolutionary, for turning the European automotive establishment on its head. Second: I admit to having had an obsession with finding a Kadett in Eugene. The first Kadett CC was found in Austria, the second in the Midwest. But I never gave up hope, and suddenly this appeared in my neighborhood. The fact that it was a Rallye 1900 sealed the deal: its story of how it upset the automotive order of things (thanks quite likely to Bob Lutz) must be told.

A very brief recap: the Kadet was GM’s highly pragmatic small Opel, designed to do battle against the dominant VW Beetle. Our first Kadett chapter was titled “It Dethroned The VW”; which it certainly did in Europe. And in the US, sold by Buick dealers, it became the second best selling import.  Not bad, for a tinny shit box, and I use that expression both as a pejorative and a compliment. The Kadett was one of those brutally honest and straight-forward cars, which generated the extremes of opinions, and never seemed to mind. A delicate flower it was not.

Enough of the basic Kadett’s impact on the economy car market, both in Europe and the US. Let’s talk about the performance car market, and for just now, we’re talking about Europe only. Before the Kadett Rallye changed the game, there was a very highly structured and conservative pecking order then. You want serious performance? Be ready to pay the big bucks. Economy cars were for the working folks, and performance cars were for the decidedly affluent. With very little exception, there was a performance “wall”. Don’t ask what cars like the Lancia Fulvia cost new. Even the new 96hp 1600-02 “small” BMW was totally out of reach for the typical working Johannes.

The mass-market European brands had not discovered or embraced performance, at least not in the more obvious way. Small cars had very small engines; there were almost no upgrade choices then. Cars in the Kadett’s class had little fours in the 900cc to 1200cc range typically, with maybe 40 to 50 hp. You want more? You had to step up to larger and significantly more expensive cars, like the Opel Rekord; which were of course also heavier, negating the larger engine’s power somewhat. It was a hierarchy, and it had a good reason: it protected the outsized prices that the larger cars commanded.

Sound familiar? The same system was largely in place in the US too, going back some years earlier. In the early fifties, Chevy wouldn’t have dreamed of offering an engine as big as an Olds or Buick V8, never mind one more powerful. By 1958, that taboo was broken. But GM still had a rule about no compacts/intermediates with engines larger than 330 cubic inches. You like big motors? Buy a Bonneville, with its outsized profit margins. Well, we know what happened. John DeLorean snuck a 389-powered Tempest past the big wigs on the 14th floor in 1964, and the rest is history.

In 1966, Chevrolet dropped the big block 396 into the mid-size Chevelle, creating the SS 396, and an enduring legend.

And two years later, they did the same with the compact Nova. It’s surely no coincidence that the Kadett Rallye 1900 looks like a 7/8 sized Nova or Chevelle SS396; which is what it was. Stick the biggest engine from the Rekord into the little Kadett, and it’s the non-Ferrari GTO/Nova SS 396  of Europe. Its impact was even greater though, because the European hierarchy was more rigid at the time; America was more innovative, and the idea of a compact with a big V8 wasn’t exactly earth-shattering. The 1957 Rambler Rebel already had a 255 hp 327 under the hood. It was just a matter of time.

And who do we have to thank for the Rallye 1900? I can’t find any hard evidence of it, but it’s got the fingerprints of Bob Lutz all over it; or under it, as the case may be. If he could flip a Kadett on its head, he could also teach it to flip the European market on its head. Bob was an executive at Opel between 1963 and 1971, and his specialty was always the big picture, not the nuts and volts.

Now the Rallye 1900 did have a warm-up act, in the form of the 1966 Kadett Rallye. But that buzz-bomb had a highly-strung version of the Kadett’s 1100cc four, sporting two carbs, a nervous rasp, 60 hp, and about as much torque curve as a dentist’s drill. Not exactly a Euro-GTO,  but it already began to drill away at the the foundations.


In 1965, Opel introduced a new family of engines, in four (1.5 to 2.4 L) and six-cylinder (2.2 to 3.6 L) configurations. Dubbed the CIH, for Cam In Head, it was actually designed in Detroit at the GM mothership. Why and how the same organization could design  this quite capable and rugged powerplant, and then a few years later design the anything-but capable and rugged Vega engine will remain one of the mysteries of life.

The CIH was rather unusual in that although the cam was in the head, it resided alongside the valves, not above them. Lifting the cam/valve cover revealed a very GM-typical affair of individual rockers mounted on studs. But instead being actuated by pushrods, the valve lifters (mechanical at first, later hydraulic) sat between the cam and the rockers. It eliminated the pushrods, but otherwise the head was still much like a typical OHV affair, with intake and exhaust ports on the same side (non-crossflow).

Beginning with the 1968 MY, Kadetts suddenly gained access to these “big block” fours. Strictly speaking, the big fours in 1.5 and 1.7 L versions were only available in Europe in a new high-end Kadett, called the Olympia. But for the US, the Olympia’s new grille was adopted across the board on the Kadett range, and the 80 (gross) hp 1.5 L four became available as a step-up options on all regular Kadetts.

But the Rallye got the biggest of the CIH fours made at the time, 1900cc, 102 (gross) hp and 115 ft. lbs of torque. Sounds unimpressive from today’s perspective, but keep in mind that this mini-Chevelle SS weighed less than 2000 lbs, and cost just $2314. And the Rallye ‘s suspension was fortified too, and even sported standard disc brakes; take that, SS 396.

The Rallye 1900 was greeted enthusiastically on both sides of the pond. Even Car and Driver, which “assassinated” the wagon version of the Kadett, was very enthusiastic about the Rallye 1900, despite considerable similarities. Road and Track called it “a lot of performance for the money”. It handled quite decently, for the times, and offered a combination of qualities otherwise not available elsewhere.

Just as the GTO preceded the Mustang in the USA, so the did the Rallye melt the pavement a bit with its tiny 13″ tires for the next stage of the revolution in Europe: the Ford Capri. Taking its cues from both the American Mustang and the Kadett, the 1969 European Capri came in a dizzying variety of engine choices: everything from the 1.3 L Kent four and the Cologne 1.3 L V4, up to the biggest V6s made by the respective Ford UK and German ops (3.0 and 2.6 L). In just two years, the budget performance revolution was essentially complete. The seventies was a time of growing income levels in Western Europe, and now performance was in reach.

The Rallye 1900 enjoys cult status, although I suspect the cult is a very small one indeed. There are a few souls who have one of these in good shape still, and enjoy its vintage pleasures. Just looking at that seat gives me the willies, though, as it’s almost completely unchanged from the black ones in my father’s 1964 Kadett A.

It’s hard to believe only four years separated his 40 hp austere “green frog” from the 102 hp Rallye.

But the times, cars and hemlines were changing quickly. And the Rallye 1900 was leading the charge, at Opel as well for the small car market. Almost overnight, performance versions of Europe’s small cars appeared; well, except at poor old VW. They eventually had the last laugh with their Golf GTI, a modern reincarnation of the theme pioneered by the Rallye 1900.

I thought I was having one of my rougher 1968 flashbacks when I saw this in a carport on our regular walk to the Y, not more than ten blocks from my house. Heiliger Kadett! And what a battle-worn one it is at that.

But except for a bit-o-rust on the front end of the rocker, it seems reasonably intact. What its future holds is anyone’s guess. Are rocker panels available from J.C. Whitney? Maybe if you could find an old catalog from 1971.

There’s something jaunty and pugnacious about these that just appeals to me. And the tall profile and high beltline look vaguely contemporary. Or is my flashback kicking in again? Or maybe its just the ultra-contrarian 13 inch wheels. I’d like to drive this to a car show with lots of pristine red and black Chevelle SS396s and such, and just see what kind of reaction it would get.Yes, I guess the Rallye’s anti-establishment role resonates with me. Is it imitating big American muscle cars, or mocking them?

Update: this car was bought by a German and was shipped back home just a few weeks after I shot it. Was it the last of its kind in the US?


Related reading:
Vintage R&T Road Test: 1968 Opel Kadett Rallye 1.9 – “Spins A Rear Wheel Almost As Avidly As An American V-8 Getting Off The Line”